The word spirituality comes from the Latin word spiritus, which is translated as breath. Spirituality is most commonly defined as "relating to, consisting of or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material." Another definition centers on the thoughts of people and their relationship to the cosmos. Up until the 20th century the concept was seen as central to religion but by the end of the century it was viewed by some as being a quite separate entity.

Some would argue that spirituality makes a person more sensitive to love, justice, peace and more of the intangible things that cannot be directly perceived by a person's senses. It supports the idea that the human being and the rest of creation are composed not only of matter but of something that is immaterial and beyond our knowledge. Other definitions of spirituality explain it as a power, greater than oneself, that is operating in the universe; a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures; and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life and the development of personal, absolute values. It is impossible to point out the "right" definition as each individual perceives the word spirituality in his or her own way.

For many spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope, comfort and inner peace in their lives. It is important to note that spirituality is not religion. The term is often related to religious life but spirituality can be reached outside religion. The characteristics of spiritual life include selflessness, altruism and the experience of inner peace. In general, spirituality provides a way for people to escape from the negativity, frustration, anger and stress in their lives. Practices such as prayer, meditation and yoga allow a person to reach the balance between his or her thoughts and actions.

Despite the fact that it varies from person to person, spirituality has a number of common themes. A person living spiritual life seeks to reach beyond his or her limits. This goal may include questioning beliefs, keeping an open mind and trying to better understand the ways of the other people. Self discovery is an important factor to many people who regard themselves as spiritual. Spirituality's objective is not always to reach a conclusion or solve a problem but rather to help find a direction, meaning and purpose in life. Another major theme in spirituality is reaching and understanding a higher power that, depending a person's views, may be rooted in religion or nature.

Many believe that there is a clear connection between spirituality and health. In the early beginnings of Western medicine, generations of healers saw the body and spirit as intertwined. That changed with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment but many contemporary studies show that spirituality has a major role in the healing process. Spiritual practices are believed to improve coping skills and to foster feelings of optimism and hope. They also promote healthy behavior, lift feelings of depression and encourage a sense of relaxation.

Faith, hope, forgiveness and love are part of the teachings of spirituality. Researchers believe faith bolsters the body's resistance to stress, which in the 21st century is a common reason for many widespread health problems. Hope, on the other hand, may help a person fight depression and lower the chances of falling ill. Forgiveness as a practice is encouraged by many religious and spiritual traditions as it helps get rid of hostility and resentment. In the United States, there are many medical schools that have spiritual teachings as part of the curricula. Still, no one has yet ventured to persuasively validate or disprove the theory that spirituality and health are connected.

Mary MacDonald, in the Encyclopedia of Religion (2005) examines the concept of spirituality in relation to religion. She focuses on spirituality and different faiths - describing "classic spiritualities" - which range from Christianity, Hinduism Buddhism and Islam to the spirituality of indigenous Australians. "By spirituality one denotes the characteristic sentiments and way of life of those who were born into, or came to embrace, a particular tradition." MacDonald also discusses "contemporary spiritualities," which combine religious practices with concerns for what is happening in terms of ethics and ecology in relation to the planet, with an emphasis on seeking peace. The author cites the work of Matthew Fox In A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty, and Us (1979), in which Fox suggests that spirituality is an alternative to religion, with an emphasis on compassion.

Spirituality: Selected full-text books and articles

The Study of Spirituality By Cheslyn Jones; Geoffrey Wainwright; Edward Yarnold Oxford University Press, 1986
The Curve of the Sacred: An Exploration of Human Spirituality By Constantin V. Ponomareff; Kenneth A. Bryson Rodopi, 2006
Selving: Linking Work to Spirituality By William Cleary Marquette University Press, 2000
Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and American Religion By Gregory C. Stanczak Rutgers University Press, 2006
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